By Stuart Gibbs
During the summer of 2019, Jim Goodwin was appointed St Mirren manager. He had been at the Paisley club before – from 2011 to 2016 – as a player and influential captain. Now he had the task of keeping the club in the SPFL Premiership despite being hot favourites for the drop. The prospects for the first St Mirren side of the 1870s were also unpromising but it was another talismanic leader John ‘Johnny’ Paterson, who led the club as they made their first faltering steps as an association side to establish themselves as one of the prominent sides in Renfrewshire and also the wider country.
They began in 1870 as Hazelwood Cricket Club, changing to St Mirren in 1872. The side’s ground was to the north of Paisley, close to the Shortroods hamlet where they hosted local sides such as Arthurlie and Barshaw. On June 11th 1877, St Mirren travelled to Garvel Park in Greenock to take on another Renfrewshire rival, Morton. They were named after their patron, town Provost and social reformer, James Morton and matches between the clubs have been since a regular feature. That first encounter, however, was on a cricket field with Morton winning by 65 runs. Johnny Paterson played a prominent role in the cricket XI as an article published in 1885 testified:
‘As an old member of the St Mirren Cricket Club he seldom left the wickets without having kept the scorers busy, and when the game began to suffer from one of those periodical reactions, he was unanimously appointed captain in ’74-75, which position he held advantageously.’
A shipping manifest from 1885 lists Paterson’s birth as approximately 1863 and seems extraordinarily young to be appointed captain of a cricket side in the mid-1870s. Early team photographs, however, show collections of rather youthful looking men and when match secretary Walter Craig – he had been with the club since the early days – died in 1884, press reports noted that he was only 24. In the autumn of 1876, St Mirren were trying their luck as a rugby XV to limited success, they made better progress the following autumn with an association XI.
St Mirren’s association debut took place at Shortroods on October 6th 1877 against Johnstone Britannia, another cricket XI turned to soccer. The game’s highlight was a Thomas Graham shot across the Britannia goal which was bundled over the line by John Goold, for St Mirren’s first goal. It also secured a debut win. In a bid to progress the club the side moved grounds first to Abingdon Park during mid-September 1878, then, the following autumn at Thistle Park on the Greenhill Road, on part of the site occupied by the current stadium.
For the 1880/81 season, Johnny Paterson was elected St Mirren’s captain and on September 4th 1880 he led the side out for their first competitive match, a 3-0 Scottish Cup win against Johnstone Athletic. That season also saw Saints reach their first cup final. St Mirren had not been part of the Renfrewshire Football Association when it was formed in 1878, now an association member they had reached the final of the Renfrewshire Cup. Johnny Paterson was praised for his dashing brilliant style and supporters at the far end of the ground cheered when a Paterson header came down off the crossbar, thinking it had actually gone in. In the end, the Saints lost 3-1 to Barrhead side Arthurlie but they would only have to wait until the following season for their first success.
As a promotion, Glasgow businessman Thomas C. Barlow donated a trophy for a match between Saints and Alexandra Athletic. Barlow, a manufacturer of ships signal rockets and blue lights, was also known for his grand firework displays and the Dennistoun side he supported were ranked close to Queens Park and Rangers. The arrival of Alexandra Athletic attracted over 3,000 people to Thistle Park for the fixture, held appropriately enough on November 5th 1881. St Mirren made the best of the heavy conditions and they were already two goals up when Paterson had a shot though was tipped over the bar. This was only a reprieve as the Paisley side added three more goals with Alexandra getting a single consolation effort. It was a shock result and reports of the game reflected surprise, especially at the 5-1 scoreline. Thomas Barlow was unexpectedly called away before the reception at the Globe Hotel so it was left to the Alexandra Athletic’s president to present Johnny Paterson with the silverware.
St Mirren met Morton in their first association match on September 30th 1882 in the second round of the Scottish Cup. The fixture resulted in an uncomfortable 3-1 loss. However, the result was the catalyst for a fierce rivalry which has extended until the present day. On January 12th 1883, Saints made their first trip to England to play Bolton Wanderers and Blackburn Rovers. Paterson also played in representative matches turning for Renfrewshire against Lanarkshire and Dunbartonshire but the highlight of the season was meeting Thornliebank in the Renfrewshire cup final. On 14th April 1883, Paterson led the side out at East Park, and despite having an early goal disallowed St Mirren came away with a 3-1 win. At a later event at the George Hotel, the Renfrewshire Association’s secretary presented the St Mirren president Samuel Dougall with the trophy.
The 1883/84 season was memorable as it saw St Mirren turn out for the first time in their famous black and white stripes. The club had also relocated to Westmarch – a ground just a few hundred yards along the Greenhill Road. Queens Park were the first visitors and despite fielding a scratch team, Saints celebrated a historic 2-1 win. The Scottish Cup campaign went as far as round three losing out to Arthurlie 3-1. There was a better run in the Renfrewshire Cup where they met Thornliebank in the final. The match played at Abercorn’s Blackstoun Park ended as 1-1. Two further replays at the same ground were distinguished by extra-time being played but to no avail.
The fourth meeting between the clubs took place at Old Rangers Kinning Park Ground on May 8th 1884. On the Saturday ahead of the replay, Saints met bitter local rivals Abercorn at Westmarch, and despite losing an early goal inflicted a 4-2 mauling. The Renfrewshire Cup third replay produced an even more extravagant result, St Mirren running out with a grand 7-1 scoreline. The result was wired to Paisley resulting in a large crowd gathering at Paisley Cross to greet the side as they arrived from Glasgow on a horse-drawn break. This proved to be the high watermark for Paterson’s career at St Mirren. There was another tour to Lancashire, but two further cup finals ended in disappointment with Saints finishing runners up in both the Renfrewshire and Charity Cups. The 1884/85 season proved to be Johnny Paterson’s last for the club, leaving to pursue a new life in Australia.
Ahead of the departure, he attended a small reception at John Drew’s Café during which he was presented a purse containing sovereigns as a testimonial. A few days later, on August 5th 1885, he boarded the Steamer Waroonga at the Broomielaw, bound for Brisbane. He had been a stalwart leader for St Mirren taking them to their first trophy wins and was undoubtedly the club’s first legend. On March 17th 2013, Jim Goodwin arrived at Greenhill Road with the League Cup much as John Paterson had done in the 1880s. St Mirren’s current ground opened in 2007 is by an odd coincidence built on part of the site of the old Thistle Park, scene of Saints first cup win back in 1881. On August 3rd 1885, the Paisley Daily Express printed the following epitaph:
‘Since the start of his club in ’77, he has been five times appointed captain a very manifest declaration of his ability in itself. The club, the town, the shire, lose a good man in Paterson.’
St Mirren struggled through most of the 2019/20 season, on occasions propping up the division. Late season results against Motherwell and Hearts helped raise the side out of the danger zone, but the COVID-19 pandemic led to the suspension of the league ahead of the split. On May 23rd 2020, competition was halted altogether leaving Saints with a seventh-place finish. It is not clear how well football will fair in the ‘new normal’ but it has been said, that St Mirren in the course of their history have been survivors, but a look at their early history shows that they were born survivors.